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Air Power in Australia’s Maritime Strategy - Dr Robbin Laird

Dr Robbin Laird, Air Power in Australia’s Maritime Strategy, 21 April 2024

This was the title of the presentation by Chris McInnes, a noted Australian airpower and defence analyst, to the April 11, 2024 Williams Foundation Seminar. He provided an overview of how airpower made unique contributions to Australian defence by providing rapid strike options throughout the Australian areas of interest.

McInnes highlighted air power’s ability to provide rapid engagement and could do so over extensive operational space to deliver desired effects. He argued that in times of an effects-based approach, airpower transforms the time and space dimension for Australia’s maritime strategy.

Airpower provides cost-effective options for Australia’s national security and cost-effectiveness should be prioritized in Australia’s maritime strategy of denial, focusing on delivering large amounts of high explosives to hard targets like warships, airfields, and ports.

Indeed, his presentation was an argument that airpower provided a cost-effective way to deliver massive firepower at range.

His analysis led to his argument that airpower gives Australia time and space to plan, act, and move effectively. This means that prioritizing investment in air superiority to avoid second-best hand in high-stakes situations is crucial.

The presentation can be broken down into three core efforts.

The first was to look back at World War II and examine airpower’s key role in the Pacific campaign. It played a crucial and decisive impact on the enemy prior to any other means to encroach on the Japanese advances in the Pacific. A combined arms campaign was necessary to recover territory seized by the Japanese empire, but air power was the tip of the spear and a core element of the ability of the allied air forces from sea and land to destroy enemy forces.

The second revolved around the question of the time-space functionality of airpower. Every platform in the joint force is a time-space entity with core characteristics which define what it is able to do. Airpower can move at speed and range no ship can; ships provide slower moving capabilities which can build out a presence force.

As he argued:

“We can swiftly respond with airpower across huge distances with different options in different places on different days. We have more options available and more time in which to consider them.

“But it works both ways. Three hours from Darwin is also three hours to Darwin. PLA airpower can and does hold Australia and its assets at risk across our region in a discretionary, scalable and sustainable manner and in hours, not days. It has already disrupted Australia’s sense of time and space. We are inside our warning time.

“I don’t think we’ve quite latched on to what that means though. Airpower shapes how we sense and exploit time and space, which is the most precious thing for Australia and its maritime strategy.”

He used a chart to visually underscore the time-space point about airpower.

McInnes carefully examined the cost-benefit of weapons delivery enabled by airpower with standoff weapons from sea or land.

He introduced his analysis as follows:

“My analysis is limited to strike as the central operational feature of Australia’s maritime strategy of denial. I see the delivery of large amounts of high explosives as determining strike effectiveness and war, and credibility in circumstances short of war.

“Australia’s maritime strategy of denial depends on our ability to deliver large and concentrated amounts of high explosive at long range, we could call this impactful projection. We need to hit hard enough to stop movement in different places on different days across a huge area over and over again.

The charts he showed highlighted the range, unit costs per weapon, and warhead class correlated with the launch platform to assess cost effectiveness of ADF weapons.

He described the charts this way:

“Unit costs are shown in U.S. dollars and are based on U.S. budget figures going back to the 70s. The unit cost of new weapons will fall as more are purchased.

“The charts clearly show that the delivering the weight of explosive our maritime strategy needs is going to be very expensive, particularly if we become overly reliant on stand-off missiles rather than stand-in weapons in the bottom left corner. It is remarkable how often one reads of the ADF need for long range missiles because of the apparently short range of our air power.

“We must however distinguish between stand-off range – which is the distance a weapon travels from its launcher, and which is what the first chart shows – and effective reach, which incorporates the distance the platform and weapons can rapidly cover.

“When considering effective reach rather than stand-off range, the picture changes dramatically. Stand-in weapons suddenly become some of our longest-range options.

“The second chart incorporates a modest strike radius for the Super Hornet, our shortest-range weapon carrying aircraft. The ADF certainly does need stand-off weapons as they have specific utility against particular targets including air defenses, but they are expensive and inefficient high explosive delivery devices.

“Every exquisite component is single use and many many missiles are needed for strikes, particularly against defended targets. They must carry and do everything internally, including propulsion, navigation and communication. This forces trade-offs, often in warhead size.”

“Stand-in weapons are much lower cost and almost entirely warhead, including our largest options. They do rely on expensive delivery platforms, but these are reusable, and multi-role. We do need standoff weapons for specific tasks. But once that is done, stand-in weapons are our most economical and among our longest range options for maritime strategy of denial.”

He then focused on the key question of the operational infrastructure for the ADF and its operations, arguing that criticism of airpower as too dependent on vulnerable bases and supply lines overlooked the reality that these dependencies could not be avoided.

This is how he put it when looking at the opportunity costs of different operations:

“What are the trade-offs?

“It seems unavoidable that Australia will always need bases and supplies in its north for military operations in our region. Because at some point, all operations need bases and they will all need air power of some kind. Suggestions that dispersing Australia’s assets throughout the archipelago to our north can somehow minimize these costs are hard to square.

“Even assuming we hold permission to fly missiles through our neighbours airspace, the units will need to supply and defend themselves locally against air and other attack and they will still need supply lines back to Australia, which will have to be secured using air and sea power.”

McInnes’s closing point was to call for a renewed emphasis on the primacy of air superiority in airpower thinking and investment. As he said:

“However, we will have no options at all without air superiority. And this I contend is where we have reason for concern. In its simplest sense, air superiority is the condition under which we can operate free from prohibitive interference by the enemy.

“Air superiority can be general or local in time and space, it is almost never absolute, and it is a continuous struggle. It is deeply ingrained in the design and operation of Western societies and military forces, including the ADF. It is fundamentally why Australia has an Air Force. It was explicitly the prime campaign for Australian air power until the turn of the century.

“But the Western bloc has lost sight of this primacy over the last 30 years due to complacency and distraction. While the U.S. is reinvigorating it’s air superiority approach, its Air Force is struggling for funding while operating its oldest and smallest aircraft fleet since it was formed. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has given European air forces a rude wake up. Australia has strengths in the air but it would appear requirements exceed resources geographically and across missions. Mass and tempo are limited.”

“Air superiority is a fast-moving competition and deeply unforgiving for those who fall behind. The primacy of air superiority needs to be restored, particularly as the threat grows and funding is squeezed.”

Chris McInnes presenting at the Williams Foundation Seminar April 11, 2024.

The really decisive aspect of his presentation and indeed what is at the core of the evolution of 21st century combat forces, is the question of payloads and platforms or what I refer to as the evolution of the kill-web force. At the heart of the evolution of fifth generation enabled operations is a significant shift in terms of the sensor-shooter relationship whereby the weapons to be fired at an adversary do not necessarily come for the platform which has the sensor which has identified the target. This is at the heart of the F-35 development which frankly is still not fully understood and comprehended in the defence analytical world.

If your goal is to deliver lethal payloads, there are a variety of ways to do so.

But at the heart of the issue is where are they launched from and determining what target sets determine which weapons you need and their range. With manned and uncrewed air assets, one significantly reduces the range of the weapon necessary to strike a target as opposed to being launched from land or a ship. The U.S. aircraft carriers have combined speed, mobility, and launching airpower to close the distance for the missiles being fired.

To conclude, I want to build on McInnes’s focus on the need dramatically to reduce the cost of the weapons being used. I would argue that we need to build the functional equivalent of the 155mm shell used by the artillery for an air-launched missile which can be produced across the allied forces.

This will not be a super long missile, probably in the range of 400 miles, but the long range TLAMS which go further are expensive and in limited supply. What this means is that the future belongs to the common air missile produced in quantity that could also be fired from the ground or sea. The functional equivalent of the role of the shells of the 88 in the German army in World War II is what I envisage.


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